the medical ethnobotanist and philosopher Stephen Buhner had the following astute observations (posted in Facebook):
There’s a particularly good article in today’s Guardian on covid-19. I think it well worth a read. I have, of course, received scores of emails from people (with varying degrees of insistence) about the origin of the coronavirus. And, as many people know, I have been warning about the emergence of resistant and emerging microbes for over twenty years now. They are inevitable and we are unprepared for them (mostly because the medical industry is corrupt, its relationship with government oversight a joke; it is all about the money, not our health). The coronavirus origin is not and never has been an issue for me, just a matter of minor intellectual interest. Most people seem to believe that if the virus emerged as the result of a lab leak it makes some sort of essential difference. It doesn’t. It is still here, it is still a problem, it still has to be dealt with. I think that the reason that so many people are focused on the lab leak possibility is that then at least we will have someone to blame rather than having to deal with Nature inexplicably doing stuff to us. Oddly enough, the insistence on the lab leak comes out of an underlying belief that Nature can be controlled (it can’t) and we would be safe (we aren’t). In other words, IF the scientists had left well enough alone, none of this would have happened. Or, if they had practiced better safety protocols it would not have happened. The thing is, pandemics are inevitable. There are simply too many of us, there is too much pressure on natural systems, and ecosystems are beginning to fail. This always allows pathogen emergence. In fact it is a form of protection from ecosystem overload. We are just an animal, like all the others. If we put too much pressure on ecological systems we will pay for it. It is not personal, just as gravity is not personal if we drop a rock on our toe. It is just the way things work here. Should scientists be messing about with genetically altering organisms on this planet? No, they should not. Should they be messing about with pandemic capable pathogens? No they should not. It is part of the hubris of the rationalists and their scientific priests, the scientists (which are themselves part of the most successful of the protestant sects: science). I have been writing about the problems among the scientific and medical community for decades. The fact is that they are just people, no more important or valuable than a plumber or a waitress. As long as they are socially placed on a pedestal, considered better and more valuable human beings because of their degrees or job, we are in trouble. BECAUSE . . . they are people and possess all the limitations and stupidities that all of us do. Human error is inevitable. Always. Still, a lot of people believe that if it came from a lab, somehow that makes things different. Again, it really doesn’t. You have to consider the possibility that instead of us deciding to alter the organisms in the lab that the organisms decided to be altered in a human lab and simply used scientists who believe in human control to do it for them. This, of course insults core rationalist beliefs but there is far more going on here than rationalists can accept. They prefer simple reductionism and the foolish belief that humans are superior to all other life forms on this planet. (Haven’t they seen the movie? Everyone else has.) Earth is not as insentient as the rationalists and monotheists believe. Nor are our companion species. As my writings have shown (esp in Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, Healing Lyme, and the antibiotic and antiviral books) bacteria are some of the most intelligent species on this planet. So are viruses. They are not as stupid as most researchers believe them to be — and have convinced most people they are. In any event, here is the link to the article (the links in the article are well worth reading as well):
The thrust of the paper is that plant neurobiology aims to borrow the nomenclature of animal (including human) biology in order to boost the moral standing of plants. By showing analogs between animal and plant hormones and processes (analogs to brains in the root subapex, as Darwin originally postulated), plants can be treated as moral patients. However, this approach fails to acknowledge the difference of plants, and value that difference. In attempting to use animal biology language for plants, however well intentioned by plant neurobiologists, speaking in the master’s language fails to do plants justice, and reaffirms the human- and animal-centric moral evaluative position. Instead, I offer a (non-utilitarian) pluralistic account of value that allows recognition of plant intelligence without requiring that intelligence to measure up against mammal intelligence.
Here’s the abstract: Plant biologists widely accept plants demonstrate capacities for intelligence. However, they disagree over the interpretive, ethical and nomenclatural questions arising from these findings: how to frame the issue and how to signify the implications. Through the trope of ‘plant neurobiology’ describing plant root systems as analogous to animal brains and nervous systems, plant intelligence is mobilised to raise the status of plants. In doing so, however, plant neurobiology accepts an anthropocentric moral extensionist framework requiring plants to anthropomorphically meet animal standards to be deserving of moral respect. I argue this strategy is misguided because moral extensionism is an erroneous ontological foundation for ethics.
Some entitlements are deserved: added respect and deference for those who have dedicated their lives to the common good; accommodation for the elderly, pregnant women, children, and those who need it; respect for those who have sacrificed their own good and interests for those of (especially underserved) others.
We have all sorts of entitlements: ambassadors don’t have to be responsible for infractions and misdemeanors in most countries; the rich buy lawyers that can help exculpate them from crimes ranging from pedophilia rings (Epstein) to murder (O.J. Simpson), to genocide and medical cruelty (Trump’s immigrant death camps and medical experiments).
Somehow, we willy-nilly accept these sorts of entitlements – by virtue of them actually occurring, the fact that these monsters have gotten away with it. Meanwhile, our society locks up indigenous protestors protecting the water sources for millions of people, Black children get shot to death by police in America, and in the Netherlands, people with ‘foreign’ sounding names get pegged for child benefit fraud (this very claim the result of racist fraud).
So, what does this have to do with undeserved entitlement? And environmental (in)justice?
If historically advantaged minorities create two-tiered legal and moral systems preventing others from getting away with the crimes they enjoy with impunity, this gives them undeserved entitlements. Undeserved, because these entitlements are predicated on their wealth, power, and authority derived from colonialism, violence, and harming others. If you agree as I do, that no just society could have billionaires, just as no just society could have dictators because even if they are benevolent or philanthropic ones, at any given time they could easily ‘flip’ and arbitrarily exercise power harming others according to their will and caprice, then clearly these forms of power and authority lead to undeserved entitlements.
Just as we view as noxious mafias exercising their own form of illegitimate extrajudicial power, the judicial and extrajudicial powers of economic elites too should be reframed as abuses of illegitimate power. Illegitimate because economic hoarding has precisely zero correlation with largess, beneficence, magnanimity, or any virtue, for that matter.
After 20 years of meditating on the subject, I’ve noticed one thing: health inequalities and environmental destruction have a single source: in exclusion. Gated communities and sacrifice zones are predicated on opting out of a shared fate. The idea of expendables, that these people will have to fend for themselves while we do what we can to protect ours, leads to further eroding the social and ecological commons we all rely on for survival and meaning-making. As long as we can throw others under the bus to get ahead, those with the means to do so and get away with it will continue to do so. The moment we agree that such corrupt and cruel action will not be permitted under any circumstances and punished by stripping offenders of their means to commit such crimes, our ecological and social commons will regenerate and improve, making things better for all — and especially the historically most discriminated against.
If it weren’t for the separation of pollution into the categories of those subject to it and those profiting off it, pollution wouldn’t exist. That’s why I strongly advocate that anyone making money off of contaminating processes should be those most exposed to the contamination. In such a scenario, we’d see how long pollution would continue.
“Cargo vessel stuck in Suez Canal drives up shipping losses estimating $9 billion per day” – CBS’ headline reads
Global commodity markets can fail spectacularly.
One little tie up like a stuck boat, and $9 billion is lost a day.
What people don’t realize is that this $9 billion is the same money that poor and rich people worldwide destroy their ecosystems, communities, and themselves for every day in order to survive or get ‘ahead.’
As part of my procrastination today from writing my book, I stumbled upon this video by the YouTube science communicator Veritasium.
What’s so lovely about the video is how clearly it explains reams of philosophical debates between liberals and libertarians in twelve minutes, and comes to a more cogent conclusion than most of them.
Basically, situated epistemologies require those most advantageously situated to help other have better luck. Combining social psychology and behavioral economics, this video clarifies through an experimental model how luck always plays some role.
The myth of the self-made man is one of the most destructive ones of our society, and acts as cover for those well-off to not value others who have not been so lucky. The punchline of the entire video is that we have benefited from intergenerational largess, and so those who have benefited the most have a duty to enlarge the ability for others to get recognition, validation, and resources through creating opportunities for other to enlarge the pool of luck – horizontally, not vertically.
Thus, policy implications include:
Getting rid of the possibility for billionaires (using a combination of taxation, demurrage (negative interest rates), taxes on trading financial assets, etc)
Regenerating the welfare state (including a universal basic income)
Social norm changes: quit venerating billionaires or other wealth hoarders as false idols
Not let people like Bill Gates or Elon Musk make public health or climate policy decisions — as these are far out of their expertise — only because they are rich or influencers
Quit using philanthropy as an ersatz for a functioning social democracy.
Return society to science, rather than let the irrationalities of greed eclipse scientific progress, insights, and applications
I just read the New York Times excerpt of Michael Patrick F. Smith’s (names don’t get more American, or Irish–his middle, middle name is Flanigan) book The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown. What struck me first was how successful this guy is in the liberal darling — rough outsider: he’s story is about working on an oil rig — while still being pro-climate policy. He’s exactly the darling liberals have been waiting to come forward and lavish their praise on, to show that they are right and conservatives are wrong. But Smith aims to short-circuit this narrative with zingers: “Like most Americans I know, I have both strong progressive and conservative values.” This statement is immediately arresting because it is true. The Tweedledee-Tweedledum liberal conservative polarity is simply bunk. Any person, if they look into their own complexities realizes that the ideological camps we’re told we have to camp out in, never really represent our full values.
In reading the reader comments, the reason for the NYT (and Viking press) lauding and promoting this book are obvious, in addition to those described above. What is at stake is the definition of sustainable. Smith says that his conservative rural buddies have lower-carbon impacts than the liberal city slickers. This was the line most attacked by NYT readers. But what is at stake is something greater: liberals want an energy regime that sustains the unsustainable lifestyles of urbanites, tuning out to where there food, energy, water, and infrastructure come from. Cities are the classic reverse-Robin Hood: they rob from the peripheries and funnel resources to the centers. Most cities grow little food, and import almost all their stuff. Meanwhile, growing and sourcing your own food, and knowing your local ecology is something that you have to learn by default living rurally. You have to budget your ecology, live within your limits. Sure, you might burn a lot of wood during winter, but hell, its romantic — and local (if you’re not some rich ski person who buys or imports their wood).
So, the question is: does sustainability mean living off the land, more locally, more simply? Or does it mean technologically-driven and dependent futures that strive to be less impactful? The conceit of the first is that this is available for all — it’s not. We have to drastically reduce the world population to live sustainably like pioneers. The fallacy of the second is that we can have our cake and eat it too: that sustainability doesn’t require drastically re-engineering everything about our habits and lives. We can just surf on clean energy into the singularity. Both views are flawed, and will not get us to avoid collapse; but also have their merits. We must live more simply (without cars) but also in greater connection to the land. Slowing down the pace and scope of life will be necessary. We can choose it, or it will choose us. Global coordination and innovation, the type that cities provide, however, is also crucial for our future. The trick is, as Smith suggests, combining the virtues of both while owning up to their respective dark sides. Are conservatives ready for that? Are liberals?
The Washington Post‘s expose today 18 Dec 2020 on the few island nations that are still 100% COVID-19-free discusses the economic meltdown that has occurred as tourism has collapsed, especially as many of these island nations have imposed what the Post calls “preemptive lockdown” and “most drastic anti-coronavirus travel ban in the world.”
The Post insinuates that this is a bad thing — that had Micronesia been a bit more permissive and welcoming of the pandemic, they would have had less devastating economic losses. But perhaps this framing is backwards. Instead, what it reveals is the unsustainability of exogenously-sustained economies. That islands have become completely dependent on the global business model of travel and tourism. Long term, this is fragile, instead of anti-fragile (in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s description). John Rawls in his Theory of Justice even devotes an entire section on resource sovereignty and not needing external imports to sustain oneself (an implicit ecological argument — for my analysis on this elsewhere, see “The Threshold Problem in Intergenerational Justice“). In a sense, this is the opposite of Kant’s notion of Cosmopolitan Citizenship in Perpetual Peace, where trading makes us all so reliant on one another, that peace reigns because fighting each other destabilizes our economic and metabolic dependencies.
But instead of focusing on retooling these island nation’s ability to provide for themselves, to go back to their permaculture roots, they are given a false gambit: open up and woo biological misfortune, or stay closed and woo economic disaster. This is a great teaching moment.
Biological integrity is a thing. It has been swept under the rug for the last century, as elites, and a trickle down of upper middle class jet setters have drummed up an entirely just-in-time global logistics network where most of the food we eat and resources we use come from far, far away. It’s nice to eat bananas and avocados — I’ll admit. But would I give them (and many other things up) for a healthier world? You betcha.
If the choice is between being a potato-eater and being able to work and hug, versus getting exotic fruits in a closed-down quarantined life, I’ll choose the former any time.
Last year an edited volume on speculative vegetation that I contributed a chapter to on Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume came out with the University of Wales press in the New Dimensions in Science Fiction series (with a beautiful cover, I might add).
Since then, some nice reviews have surfaced, for example:
“Science fiction teaches us to ‘be-with others better.’ This is the core argument of Plants in Science Fiction, captured in one of its chapters and suffused throughout. Readers will come away with a profound and challenging understanding of what it means to be human, as well as a deep appreciation for the critical function of science fiction in a threatened world.” — Eric Otto, Florida Gulf Coast University
“Plants in Science Fiction demonstrates that science fiction and ecocriticism have much to say to each other. By considering ‘speculative vegetation,’ of course, we learn much about our own lives in the present moment on Earth.’ — Scott Slovic, Editor-in-Chief, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment
Lunch lecture on the relationship between climate and viruses by environmental philosopher and public health scientist Yogi Hale Hendlin.
The impact of the Covid-19 crisis on climate is contradictory, to say the least: besides positive effects like reduction of CO2 emissions from fewer airplanes in the sky and cars on roads, the negative effects include “ghost flights” and tens of millions of littered face masks daily. Corona and climate-change both are global “wicked” problems without current solutions. With the idea of ‘never waste a good crisis’ in the back of our heads, we investigate what lessons we can learn from eco-philosophy?
Environmental philosopher and public health scientist Yogi Hale Hendlin will discuss the relationship between climate and viruses during this webinar and argues for a drastic change in behavior instead of treating symptoms. Is our relationship to flora and fauna not partly to blame for the current crisis? Which insights from climate research offer a perspective for the corona crisis, and vice versa? And how these two pandemics – one infectious, the other chronic – intertwined?
Dr. Yogi Hale Hendlin is an assistant professor in the Erasmus School of Philosophy and core member of the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative at Erasmus University Rotterdam. At the University of California, San Francisco, Hendlin is a research associate in the Environmental Health Initiative, working on the Chemical Industry Documents and Fossil Fuel Industry Documents. Hendlin has published in journals such as BMJ, Plos Medicine, Annals of Internal Medicine, MMWR and AJPH.
An short article I wrote zooming out on the Black Lives Matter movement – “Decolonization Matters” – has just appeared in the journal Kosmos: Journal for Global Transformation.
There I write
The “white fragility” fear that the oppressed will become the new oppressors turns out to be a self-serving myth. Matriarchy isn’t a mirror reflection of patriarchy; Black Power doesn’t mean reproducing a black version of white supremacy. Rather, these alternative approaches signal the transformation and reconciliation of categories, not reproducing them merely with a different set of people at the helm.
The same Autumn 2020 issue of the journal also has many other highly relevant contributions from scholars in decolonization of thought I admire such as Alnoor Ladha, Vandana Shiva, Charles Eisenstein, and David Abram. If you look up the #curadaterra hashtag, you’ll find contributions like mine discussing how to decolonize matter – that is existence in all of it’s physical and energetic forms.
While you have to register to view the article, it’s free, and Kosmos really is full of thoughtful insights on our contemporary dynamics moving from domination to partnership.
It’s a thing. Like greenwashing, whitewashing, or astroturfing. Bee-washing is big business. It’s how companies fool us into consuming more: by appeasing our sense of guilt beforehand. It’s almost like they tried to reverse engineer our resistant points against buying things we don’t need and which hurt the environment, and then systematically distracting and deluding our conscious mind so that we’ll buy their crap anyhow.
Don’t believe me? Listen to Adam Conover explain it:
From Tom’s Shoes to Burt’s Bees, to BodyShop and all the other fake do-gooder companies that attempt to make their billion dollar businesses into “aw shucks” 501(c)3s on the outside while replicating the same corporate structure as ExxonMobil, the myth of doing good through consumption is especially coopted for groups leaning on the environment.
Here are just a few beewashing advertisements I’ve recently come across:
noun /bēwäSHiNG/ 1. a form of greenwashing where a product, service, or organization is advertised as being more “bee-friendly” than it actually is
These major corporations and their support of unsustainable agriculture practices are here figured both as cause of colony collapse disorder and savior of the bees. They use their bee-washing to smokescreen their complicity in CCD.
Bees have become little more than a branding tool for most of the corporations that mention them. And some academic might potentially do an overview of all the mentions of bees by food and personal care product companies, and see how much of it would be considered bee-washing (my guess, upwards of 90%).
Here, I can only reiterate what I have stated (and will continue to state) elsewhere:
Companies should be outlawed and fined for using images of nature (whether bees, pandas, beautiful trees, sunsets, etc) until they can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are actually not destroying the material conditions for these beings and phenomena to flourish.
Short of this, we fall into necrophilic symbols, a cannibalism of the real by memes. This is just the sort of simulacra replacing life and living systems that Baudrillard warned us about.
We’re sheltering in place. We’re not going out. In some places in the world, like India, Italy, and China, their quarantines were so effective that for the first time in remembrance, one could see the Himalayas from 200 kilometers away, the canals of Venice were crystal clear, and the pollution cleared over Beijing (saving an estimated 70,000+ lives in China alone).
But not in the Netherlands. Home of capitalism and embracers of neoliberalism, why would residents here feel put out to change their patterns, to inconvenience themselves, to take this moment to reflect, rather than get things done and seize the business opportunity? We’re not a Catholic nation, so sacrifice for the community doesn’t come naturally.
And yet, as a philosopher, I sit at home, trying to get something done, while neighbors on every side of my apartment drill and cut, chisel and screw. The incessant high-pitched whiz of machines echo around the binnenplaats of our neighborhood more than ever with hammering and sawing like never before. The machines of building, rebuilding, and renovating are heavy at work in this corona quarantine. Quarantine in Dutch could be translated as ‘take advantage of this opportunity to get as much done as possible.’ All those side-project, delayed repairs, or prospective sells, are too juicy to pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Do the local inspectors inspect? Or does building just go on as fast as possible in this interim? It seems as if the construction business is booming, as eager capitalists wish to flip houses left and right. Buy low, fix up a dumpy place with bourgeois aesthetics and name-brand stoves and refrigerators, expand that kitchen by knocking out the dividing wall, et voilà! sell the house for twice as much as you bought it just a couple years back. I know this is business as usual, but during the quarantine, sometimes it seems even more cynical than usual.
I’ve also heard more low-flying propeller planes (the type that have no purpose but for ‘fun’ and polluting the atmosphere) flying overhead than ever before. While Schiphol might have reduced its daily flights, the amount of air traffic around Rotterdam, at least, seems to have barely dipped if at all.
The noise makes it hard to do my online teaching and calls at home, to do my quiet work at my improvised home office. I’m lucky to have a job that requires few supplied, and makes little noise. But part of public health as it intersects with public infrastructure is finding out how to better share our inconveniences, share our suffering more. Those working in logistics, food production, service work, and transportation, need our support in myriad ways. As in a war effort, there is much to be done to work together to support each other. Those who see this coronavirus quarantine as merely a holiday have an ethical duty to reduce their travel and externalities, and simplify their lives. Since coronavirus is a respiratory virus that affects the lungs, clean air as good medicine. We should maintain that we don’t pollute our neighbors’ lungs with sawdust for our own gain.
I propose that the Mad Max building explosion isn’t the only way to do a quarantine (and perhaps isn’t the most effective for public health, either). Instead of this building craze, doing all the obnoxious things that one would have done had time otherwise permitted, I offer a different tack. To deal with the particulate matter pollution, the noise pollution, and the general disturbance and unrest of motors, cement mixers, falling lumber, skill saws, power drills and other implements of machine-driven building, I propose that during this quarantine period that all building stores could also close, and people take a rest. Allowing ourselves to take a collective breath, might open space for reflecting on the purpose of our pursuits, if only for a month. This would provide a much needed exhalation from the Protestant Work Ethic that Max Weber so articulately burlesqued.
The compulsion to stay busy in many ways is a (mostly) healthy coping mechanism. In times of crisis, with loss of routine, throwing oneself into a new project – especially a physically demanding or potentially lucrative one – seems like a good solution. The stoics, however, cautioned otherwise. There’s a reason why most religions have a Sabbath of one sort of another, a regular, cyclical holy day on which all activity stops, and we rest from the dynamo of constant work and preoccupation that puts food on the table, shelters us, and makes the world go around. Because unless we take regular periods of reflection – conscious stops to our business – we might be mistaken into assuming that being busy is an end unto itself; that the constant activity is the purpose of life, instead of the play, reflection, connection to one’s family, friends, and nature that are the fruits of our labor.
We could see this corona quarantine as an extended Sabbath. As a moment when the headstrong resentful frustrated young men give up on their aggressive urges to gun their motors on their motorcycles to beat their chests in antiquated displays of male dominance. When we reduce our grocery shopping to once a week, and take up other, more reflective projects. When we visit those places which bring us joy and renewal, and linger a while, without the pressures of returning to meet stringent schedules. And that we put our ambitious projects on pause for a moment – especially if these create dust and mess (aural, visual, kinetic, or otherwise) that negatively affect our neighbors and community.
Precisely this return to community is the paradoxical opportunity here in this crisis. In every state of exception, we can either barrel on with business as usual, seeing everything as a nail because all we have is a hammer; or choose wisely to reflect on the ends of our society and our role in it. The government of Amsterdam has recently chosen to do the latter, adopting a donut economics model of providing a social floor and acknowledging the ecological ceiling of human activity. This is a laudable model for other cities and countries to follow. Infrastructural violence contributes to social injustices stemming from pandemics hitting the poor and marginalized the most, but also climate crisis and gentrification present asymmetrical harms due to the same underlying mechanisms. Realizing the moral truth that it is non-optional to take care of those in our community most vulnerable, as well as belatedly honoring the limits to growth, offers hope that humans don’t end up just doing the same damn thing after another, unreflectively, to paraphrase Arnold Toynbee. Adopting measures going to the origins and not just the symptoms of emergencies allows humanity to break free from deterministic loops which playing back the same mistakes generation after generation.
I work at night now, to enjoy the relative silence. The main streets still roar, but at least the buzz saws desist. As I pause, I wonder what it would be like for silence to reign. What would we feel in our urban environments? What feelings are we pushing away by compulsively motoring on? How majestic would our cities feel, if for once, if for only a moment, we allowed the stillness and silence to work on us?
Si estén en Santiago de Chile, porfa venga a esta charla que voy a dar en ingles martes, el 17 de diciembre.
El Instituto de Ciencia Política, invita a la charla “The Promise and Perils of Carbon Taxes for Inclusive Prosperity”, presentada por el profesor Yogi Hendlin, Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative, Erasmus University Rotterdam, el martes 17 de diciembre, a las 11:00 horas, en la sala de Consejo del Instituto, 2do piso de la Facultad.
Many colleagues and students ask me what books or authors I would recommend. So, I’ve decided to start an archive of the best tools on the web, and the most impactful books I know of for social and personal evolution.
(this is a work in progress, that I will be iteratively updating)
For the last 8 summers, Switzerland has been wrapping glaciers in blankets to stop them melting. These desperate strategies are increasingly becoming more common as our ecosystems unravel, ecotourism becomes threatened, and local people’s semiotic world falls apart. The Estonian philosopher Ivar Puura has coined the term “semiocide” to describe what happens to our familiar environmental scaffolding falls away. The violence of climate change is precisely that of diaspora, it is a destruction of continuity, of community, of memory, of what James Gibson calls our “affordances.”
Realism in climate change has always taken a back seat to sustaining the unsustainable, as Ingolfür Bluhdorn has pointed out. We have neglected taking action because we have failed to realize how delicately and intimately our fundamental humanness is tied up with this fluke of stable predictable climate and biodiversity. The industrialized western mind too quickly found it plausible to remain human while dehumanizing our historical environments. The pipe dream of infinite fungibility, attempting to conquer the irreversible arrow of time, has left us with no more capital in our pockets. We have converted life into digital bits, and our digital bits can never buy back life.
The modelling of exchange has dominated our miscalculations. Discounting has reigned as the controlling paradigm, when the few metrics ill-fitted for values beyond exchange monetary value have even entered the accounting process.
Thus, we find ourselves covering glaciers with blankets instead of simplifying life. The quixotic act serves only to further burlesque the limpness of international governance of runaway corporate fossil fuels industries.
There is not enough blankets in the world to cover the glaciers that will need covering. We now engage in these ridiculous fake-care situations, that are feel good, not efficacious. If those same Swiss citizens engaged in direct action to stop flying and driving, and returned Switzerland to a local, pre-fossil fuels economy, they would be much more effective in saving their charismatic glaciers than by these overdramatized overtures of love and dedication.
While covering glaciers may make for good Extinction Rebellion entertainment, the energy used to pop the popcorn to watch such a spectacle is not even worth the future warming to even enjoy anymore the stale popcorn.
We need to wake up to the elephants in the room – and stop immediately oil, coal, and gas drilling, for the rest of eternity.
I gave a talk a few weeks ago for the Erasmus Sustainability Hub which is now online. I had a great time being interviewed by Wallerand Bazin. They did a great job too in assembling a set of links to some of the major themes I covered. I hope you’ll check out their blog series and support this new podcast.
The original article, published here, takes a rather pro-industry “we’ll engineer our way out of this” approach. Rather than observing a fundamental problem in putting artificial inputs unsustainably into agriculture, the article plays to the upbeat agribusiness narrative of getting over “minor” problems, and that the “health” of a business or industry should and does outweigh the health and well-being of life on earth. A bit quixotic, sure, but such are the narratives of industrial epidemics.
In this blog post, I will take this WSJ article on Bayer’s glyphosate as a paradigmatic example of what George Orwell called “Newspeak,” and what Harry Frankfurt calls “Bullshit”–the use of words and framing to sophisticly make the weaker argument the stronger and the stronger the weaker. In other words, we’re dealing here with the oh-so-common muscular relativism which subordinates truth to power.
Bayer AG BAYRY -0.67% plans to invest €5 billion ($5.64 billion) on developing new ways to combat weeds over the next decade, as the German chemicals and pharmaceuticals giant seeks to win back trust in its business in the wake of thousands of lawsuits alleging its Roundup herbicide causes cancer.
Exhibit A of not taking responsibility: call for more “Research” when plenty has been done, and most says that we need to go to organic regional farming with reduced or no inputs.
A big legal fight over the blockbuster weedkiller—inherited with its takeover of Monsanto Co. last year—has plunged Bayer into one of the worst crises in its 155-year history. The company has lost the first three jury trials to plaintiffs claiming Roundup gave them non-Hodgkin lymphoma, with the highest award topping $2 billion. In response, its shares have almost halved over the past year.
Both Bayer and Monsanto had their origins in poison manufacture, so it makes sense that Bayer would be interested in buying Monsanto. It was a huge mistake, but then again, if you are Bayer, and see Monsanto as a profitable buy, then you know the sort of company you keep. If you’re a shareholder in Bayer, you can only say mea culpa.
It’s not like Bayer’s stock price is going to go up either, any time soon, if ever.
While Bayer is appealing the jury verdicts and continues to vigorously defend the safety of Roundup and the active ingredient glyphosate, its announcement Friday shows how the company is being forced to change tack under pressure from its legal woes. Bayer said glyphosate would retain an important role in its portfolio but that it was also “committed to offering more choice for growers.”
Bayer is not changing tack, it is taking the tried and untrue denialist path of most resistance against accountability, responsibility, sustainability, and science. We don’t need “growers” to be yoked to Bayer, Monsanto, or any other agribusiness. We need them to be free, supported by each other and society, and not in debt to a chemical manufacturer for its survival.
The company said the €5 billion earmarked for herbicide development over the next 10 years would largely fit into the annual spending of €2.4 billion that it had previously estimated for agriculture R&D in coming years. Herbicide research will represent about one-fifth of Bayer’s overall agriculture research investment, and the commitment announced Friday will include chemical research and regulatory expenses as well as new computer-driven farm-management services.
So, the WSJ’s “news” turns out to be no news at all. Instead WSJ is touting industry lies packaged as news in order to attempt to give a “convincing” face-saving “strategy” that Bayer is actually attempting to do something different. Something different is not going to make Bayer more money. If people spray less, they use less chemical, and thus make less money. They’re simply, as a transnational company hell-bent on profit above all (including god?), never going to opt for less. I guess technologization could be an excuse to demand more debt from farmers, but is that even necessary?
The company also said it would cut its “environmental impact” by 30% by 2030 through new technologies and making weedkiller use more precise, and that it would also be more transparent about the safety of its products. These measures, it said, would address health and environmental concerns Bayer has faced since buying Monsanto. Bayer also took out newspaper advertisements to promote its message.
To have a chemical and poison manufacturer say they are going to “cut” their “environmental impact” through “precision” is like death drones say they’re going to cut their kill-counts through “smart bombs.” It simply doesn’t happen and doesn’t exist. Any anybody who buys that rhetoric is doing so full well that they are swallowing some pretty grotesque bullshit. Bayer being more transparent about safety, too would be easy: publish all of your unpublished studies online. We have public documents now showing that Monsanto knew in the early 1980s about the carcinogenic properties of glyphosate. Why did we have to wait more than 30 years for IARC to come to the same conclusions? How are we going to incentivize transparency for a company that would lose even more stock price if they were honest. Again, the words belie the actual situation. Managing transparency – lying about and pretending to be transparent – is not the same thing as independent 3rd-party oversight, real transparency. The icing on the Pinocchio cake is that Bayer is more interested in advertising how it wants to reform than it actually is in reforming (maybe dissolve the company and pay reparations to farmers harmed by its chemicals?).
A vote of no-confidence like this means that the company should come under new leadership at the least, get rid of their toxic Monsanto asset, and trigger public oversight of the company.
Bayer and other agricultural companies are already marketing new herbicides, as glyphosate’s widespread use on U.S. farms has contributed to weeds like palmer amaranth and waterhemp developing resistance to the world’s most widely used weedkiller.
The last thing we need is the next glyphosate. “Now More Deadly than Ever!” Instead, shifting away from the stranglehold of the chemical industry on agriculture is the only way humans and the rest of the planet are going to survive this thing.
Bayer said Friday that with glyphosate’s global success came “widespread use, weed resistance, and in some instances unintended misapplication.”
We call this chess move “responsibilization,” the offloading of corporate responsibility onto consumers. Its CSR in reverse, while making it seem as if the consumers have been “bad.” Really great to blame the victims of the producers’ poisons.
Monsanto in recent years launched a new herbicide based on the chemical dicamba, along with soybean and cotton seeds genetically engineered to withstand the spray.
When all else fails, repackage poison in a new name and pretend people don’t notice.
Some farmers have said the more-powerful weedkiller drifted onto neighboring fields and damaged nonmodified crops. Agricultural researchers estimate that millions of acres of crops have been damaged by drifting dicamba. Bayer has attributed the crop damage mainly to farmers misapplying the spray. In 2018 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said farmers could continue to use dicamba under tighter restrictions.
Because Monsanto’s hat trick was to create GMOs resistant to their poisons, if their poisons get on plants that aren’t engineered to soak up unlimited amounts of highly toxic poisons they die. But guess what? Nothing in this universe stays in “its place.” That’s a pipedream of old white men, viz. Descartes and his gang that thought that you could abstract something, manipulate it, and then reintroduce it into the world as if that abstraction really existed. In critical theory, they call this “reification.” Drift happens. How could it now? If you pee in your own swimming hole, that pee is going to go everywhere, including on you, and those ducks, and your friends. Not cool. Quit pissing out poisons.
As if the solution to the chemical anthropocene were just more herbicides. Again, this “engineering approach” to digging ourselves deeper into the problems we created with profit-driven synthetic chemical thinking is parasitic on actual alternative that would free us from such chemical slavery.
The legal battle over Roundup could take years to resolve as Bayer has said it would appeal decisions and wait for the outcome of a few more cases before considering a settlement.
Bayer will not win 13,400 lawsuits. Not in the US, or elsewhere. The classic technique of buying time and delay tactics mean that every day they refuse to pay up and settle or admit wrongdoing (which our handy documents here show daily that there is more and more malfeasance), is another day that they can still make a buck off of selling glyphosate products.
Investors say Bayer’s stock is likely to struggle until there is more clarity over how much the litigation will end up costing the company. Analysts’ estimates range from €5 billion to €25 billion.
These are conservative estimates based on class-action. The tobacco MSA cost about $300 billion. Let’s see worldwide what happens to Bayer when lawsuits in other parts of the world start kicking in.
Bayer is appealing all jury verdicts so far and has vigorously defended the safety of Roundup.
Vigorously defending the safety of a product or chemical has nothing to do with whether that product is safe or not. Merely, it is part of a process that has been set up so that if a company were to admit guilt, they would lose everything, so instead, they are incentivized to lie and fight as if the company depended on it, because it does. This “too big to fail” approach which does not allow for the admission of guilt and corrective measures without imploding companies doesn’t work. We need to have civil society involved much earlier on, so that the hazards of these products never get to their world-historical proportions which they do today. We need to change our laws to incentivize humility, epistemological and ethical, instead of creating rabid denialists. In a strange way, denialism is a product of a risk regulatory framework that doesn’t allow for people to admit mistakes, pay the consequences, and move on.
In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a World Health Organization unit, classified glyphosate as likely having the potential to cause cancer in humans. That classification triggered the wave of lawsuits. Bayer argues hundreds of studies and regulatory decisions around the world show Roundup and glyphosate are safe when used as directed.
“Safe when used as directed” is another industry-standard phrase. I guess guns are safe when used as directed as well, but nothing in existence is ever used as directed. Unless you pressure test every product for all of its uses, you’re negligent, and should be held accountable so. Monsanto would have lost billions of dollars if they had ever encouraged glyphosate to be used “as directed.”
In the U.S., where Roundup has become integral to farming,Costco Wholesale Corp. recently pulled Roundup herbicides from its stores. Certain cities in California, Florida, Minnesota and elsewhere have also forbidden use of glyphosate weedkillers on municipal property while other farm-state lawmakers have defended the herbicides.
“Integral” is an interesting choice of words. Monsanto for 50 years worked to force American agriculture into its pocket, through path dependent forced coupling of seed and herbicide.
Several European countries, including France and Austria, are considering phasing out glyphosate. Early this year, a French court banned a Roundup product with the ingredient, even though it still has a European Union seal of approval. A senior executive of German public rail operator Deutsche Bahn AG told a German weekly Friday that the company together with the German environment ministry would research alternatives for combating weeds along its 33,000 kilometers of tracks.
After the German Minister of Agriculture went against Merkel and the German government’s directives to not support renewal of glyphosate in the EU, the rest of the German government decided they needed to not wait another 5 years to attend to the problems glyphosate pose to human health. The majority of their citizenry do not wish to be enslaved to a cancer-causing chemical, and no longer wish to be subjected to it. Hence, the Ministry of the Environment is taking steps throughout German society to do what failed at the EU level: protect its citizens from the harms of the next generation of poisons.
The company said it would invite scientists, journalists and representatives from nonprofits to participate in its efforts to secure re-registration of glyphosate in the EU—a review likely to trigger debate about safety. The process is expected to kick off later this year, with a vote in late 2022.
(By Ruth Bender and Jacob Bunge Updated June 14, 2019 3:02 p.m. ET)
The largess of the company to invite (and pay) scientists and others sympathetic to its cause to seduce people with good names to foul them and ruin their professional reputations for the sake of short-term financial gain is overstated. Bayer is saying that it will do everything in its power to extend its network as merchants of doubt to derail science and popular sovereignty over land and food in EU countries.
John Rawls’s (1971) notion of national self-sufficiency in terms of resources is about as far from our current globalized world as we can get, in terms of theory aimed at non-ideal applications. Globalization is a fact of life. And yet, with each displacement in our life, we have expended more and more energy to have a never-ending commodity change for each product stretched across the globe, on call and ready at hand for our whim to flick a switch and watch, do, or order something.
Just this week, a new study is out showing that our music streaming, from services such as Spotify and Apple Music, are in fact, creating billowing clouds of greenhouse gasses, leading to more destruction even as we have “virtualized” the materiality of music listening. The cloud–which after all just means storing your data on somebody else’s computers/servers and accessing it via satellite or cable/fiber-optics–is an expensive process to maintain, after all. It turns out that “owning” your own stuff in a place-based location (on your device) makes much more sense ecologically, than having it distributed all over the world and calling it in on a regular basis.
Rawls’ (1999: 39 and 106–7) aim for polity self-sufficiency suggests that a polity may not inflict negative environmental externalities on other polities, and yet, that is what the top 20% economically are doing to the bottom 80%. We (the royal, cosmopolitan, globalized western “we”) are happy to live a fabulous lifestyle as long as the carnage from our consumption are pushed out of sight and out of mind. This is precisely what Ulrich Beck refers to as the “distanciation” of the effects of our actions.
But what allows us to maintain this unsustainability is not that the top 20% don’t care about the consequences, but that we have bought into a sort of exceptionalism that suggests that we and our loved ones will be spared from the worst of the environmental fall-out. We’ve bought into American Exceptionalism Gone Wild–the rampant idea that somehow – through wealth, technology, national identity, gender, race, etc. – that we will be spared. That we are God’s Chosen One’s and can stick out our tongue and thumb our nose at the rest of the world. (Of course, such performances of behavior, implicit or explicit, prove that such people absolutely have no concept of god or powers beyond themselves.) In other words, there is a certain strata of the population, that truly believes that they will get off scot-free by cheating: barraging the world with their waste without having to clean it up or other pay for it. It is the ultimate planetary intergenerational ponzi scheme.
It is also the ultimate abdication of responibility. As we hash out details (what Freud referred to as the “narcissism of minor differences”), the world burns. And elites are quite happy about it too. Because then no nation or their people or leader has to be responsible, and can carry on with the charade. As Elinor Ostrom writes:
“Reducing emissions nowis more urgent than reaching an international agreement to reduce emissions by a given percentage, which might not be achieved for some time into the future. We do not face a situation where little harm is caused by overuse until we pass a given threshold, as may be the case with some renewable resources” (2010, 28; italics in original, bold added). No, what is at stake is the world, and nothing less. Fly, eat meat, and burn fossil fuels at your own expense, with each joule and calorie added to you account. There is no pawning off our responsibility any longer.
(Also See Bruno Latour’s Down To Earth and Michele Serre’ The Parasite)
Notes from a debrief of Philip Morris’s 1998 Litter Focus Group read: “Non-smokers tend to give smokers a lot of slack about throwing down a butt,” claiming that “throwing it on the ground eliminates fire risk,” and that litter is a “natural result of outdoor smoking areas.” For smokers, littering is a “natural part of the ritual”; an act of “rebellion”; a “small act of civil disobedience”; and an acceptable demonstration of power in “stepping on a lit object and grinding it.” To deal with the “issue” of litter, the key was “don’t be preachy,” and to have “no billboards, no advertising,” “don’t give antis any more reason to yell.”
The tobacco industry aimed to successfully frame littering, just like smoking itself, as an act of “acceptable rebellion” brings pleasure through expressing angst inexpressible elsewhere in society. Protecting and providing a safe space for these meaningless but environmentally polluting expressions of “civil disobedience” was a priority for the industry to retain and attract as many smokers as possible. It also was in the interest of other managerial regimes, such as corrupt governments to give people certain guilty pleasures that they could believe that they were being free with, so that they wouldn’t clamor for real freedoms, like clean water, clean air, a universal basic income, wealth equity, or taking their commons back.
In Erasmus University Rotterdam’s weekly online magazine Erasmus Magazine, a condensed version of my speech I gave Monday March 4th, 2019 for the Opening Ceremony of the Erasmus Sustainability Days is now published. It’s also available in Dutch [in Nederlands].
In this piece, I explore Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz’s ethological understandings of the human animal, and how certain instinctual heuristics override rational control and analysis. Using the case study of advertising, I investigate how various ways in which human life is subverted through the artificial selection of single-metric selection processes of profit. The myopia of profit even undermines itself in short-term extractivism, so it is definitionally unsustainable.
Also interrogated in this study is the way in which desires are manufactured. Using Tinbergen’s discovery of “supernormal stimuli” and Deirdre Barret’s application of this ethological finding to human epidemiology, I take a public health approach to supernormal stimuli and find that marketing and advertising strangely undermine their form of mimicry, deceiving both the intended targets and the signaler simultaneously. Analyzing sophisticated mass mimicry in contemporary culture, in both intended and unintended forms, allows for insights into how to decolonize human evolution from these insidious forms of artificial selection.
My op-ed in the American Journal of Public Health that appeared this week discusses the new tobacco waste stream of electronic cigarette waste. Electronic waste is already the fastest growing waste stream globally. Creating a new product that has no current responsible recycling infrastructure, and that may be littered widely, contributing to plastic sinks such as the Great Pacific Gyre (garbage patch) in the Pacific Ocean, is a mistake. This op-ed discusses the problem and some of the solutions that can be taken to avoid a possible environmental health and ecological disaster.
Photo of a dropped Juul vape on SF MUNI by Julia McQuoid, used with permission
Regarding this article and other research I am conducting, I also wrote a piece in the online academic blog/forum The Conversation on e-cigarettes as the Nespresso of tobacco products, environmentally speaking.